While it is unfortunate that transgender people are not playing the roles of transgender characters, the Danish Girl was an outstanding movie. I even watched it twice. The storyline is based on the 2000 novel of the same name by David Ebershoff and loosely inspired by the lives of Danish painters Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener.
But my post today is not a film review; instead, I want to provide a few friendly reminders and caution against equating this film as the template for what a transition is like.
As a transgender and queer person, here are the biggest myths that stood out to me as necessary to debunk:
1) Transitions are all the same.
It is important to keep in mind that every transition is different and unique. Some transgender people affirm their gender through surgeries, others don’t. Some transgender people pursue a medical transition, others don’t. Why? First, not every body responds to medication the same way, just like not every cisgender woman reacts to contraception the same way. Second, people cannot just be reduced to their transgender identity; we may have diabetes or other health-related conditions that prevent us from taking medication or seeking surgery. Third, we could just simply not be interested, have diverse cultural backgrounds, and/or have varied understanding and interpretations of gender. Each person’s experience with gender is personal and sacred and as diverse as the overall population.
2) Transgender people have the same struggles in accessing gender-affirming healthcare.
Although all of this current sensationalizing media around transgender people has brought good and bad visibility to the transgender justice movement, access to gender-affirming healthcare is less attainable for transgender people of color and immigrants due to the different oppressive forces trying to discriminate and “invisibilize” our existence.
3) Every transgender person seeks surgery.
While I understand the role surgery played in the film, it is important for people who are not transgender to know that such aspect of someone’s transition is very private. Under no circumstances should anyone ask a transgender person about their genitals or if we have undergone surgery. We are more than the summation of our body parts and the grotesque and perverted misplaced interest by media and intrusive people to constantly ask and focus on our genitals is dehumanizing.
4) There is one kind of transgender person.
We must also understand that there is a gender spectrum. Transgender is an umbrella term that encompasses any person of all sexualities that rejects the rigid notions of gender that are imposed on them by society. From the moment we are born, people aggressively try to rob us of our agency and self-determination and force us to adopt identities that we have yet to accept.
5) Once you affirm your gender you cannot change it.
Based on the film, I also feel the need to make it clear that transitions are not static or permanent. We are constantly evolving as people and our gender evolves with us as well. Therefore, we cannot assume someone’s gender even if we know them for a long time.
6) Transgender people change their sexuality when they transition.
The film can also give the wrong impression that a gender transition has an impact on one’s sexuality. This is false. This was the case in the film, but it is inaccurate to assume that such is the norm. Sexuality and gender are different things. There are transgender women that are attracted to cisgender women. Sexuality among transgender people is as complex and dynamic as with any cisgender person. That said, sexuality is fluid and cannot always be defined. It is up to individuals to soul search and self-identify, if desired, where their sexuality lies at any given moment.
7) How you feel is how you look. Transitions are and must be visible.
Indeed, some transitions are visible but other transitions are not visible, which leads to the distinction between gender identity and gender expression. Gender identity is how one self identifies and feels, whereas gender expression is how one presents to the world. This does not necessarily imply that some transgender people are in the closet, although in some cases that could be it, but this understanding sheds light on the reality of many gender nonconforming people.
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8) You can only be either of the male or female sex.
Another unclear differentiation in the film is that of sex as a distinct classification outside of sexuality, gender identity and gender expression. Sex is not limited to male (XY chromosomes) and female (XX chromosomes), and we must reject the false and unscientific sex binary. As a matter of fact, tens of million of people fall under other biological sexes such as X, XXY, XYY, XXXY. Yes, indeed, it is conceivable for one’s brain, body, and reproductive systems to all carry or indicate different sexes. To recapitulate, sexuality is who you are attracted to, gender is a function of culture and about self expression, and sex, while also a construct, is shaped by the number and visual appearance of chromosomes in the cell nuclei of an organism or species.
9) Gender is universal.
As previously mentioned, gender is a function of culture and therefore is neither transhistorical nor universal. In other words, because we live in a multi-cultural world, gender in its interpretations varies from nation to nation. This is important because it challenges the mostly western interpretations of transgender and cisgender, and it contextualizes the subject in a more nuance manner outside of U.S. and European shores. One can only hope that more films are created exploring the diversity of gender across cultures.
10) There is something wrong with transgender people.
Lastly, it is imperative to push back against the pathologizing of transgender beings. We are not sick. That established, we should also refrain from automatically diagnosing transgender people with gender dysphoria. Dysphoria as a condition is not only limited to transgender people. In a world where we are constantly fed unrealistic and damaging images of beauty, cisgender women and men can also suffer from dysphoria. In that vein, like cisgender people, not all transgender people live with dysphoria.
The lives of transgender people are intricate and nuanced. An understanding of us requires intentionality and a depth of knowledge on the multiple social constructs of sex, sexuality, gender identity, gender expression, and culture.
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